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The Ranking Games – A Hunger to be First

February 7, 2017 Articles, In the news, Thought Leaders No Comments
Education in Australia

Jackson Rose ©2017

This article is written in response to Professor Steven Schwartz, chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority appearing on the 60 minutes TV show, 06/02/2017. It addresses the failures of the current Australian Education System to support young adults in their development, suggests some alternatives, and calls for changes to the current system.

Pitting students against one another in a competitive fashion may force some to rise to the challenge. However, for the majority of students the idea that their final year of school comes down to a direct competition with their peers is enough to dishearten them.

At the beginning of year 12 my whole cohort set out with the same goal of achieving the best ranks they could. One by one as each of us had setbacks, failures, and hardships. Fewer and fewer students managed to continue driving themselves forward to that goal of a high ranking.

This isn’t the only problem with this system. Less than desirable results often lead students into extreme periods of stress, anxiety, and depression.

I sat in the shower one night just crying. I had learned that I did not perform as well as expected in one of my courses and had lost ranks to another student. I could feel my university dreams slipping away from me. I felt like I was failing, that I had failed my teacher, my parents and myself. The pressure to maintain and better my rank was immense. The worst part was when I underperformed and lost ranks.

The pressure we place upon ourselves comes down largely to the competitive nature of the ranking system. We begin to establish our value and self-worth on the academic results we are receiving, not on who we are as a person. The competition that the system creates takes away from the enjoyment of our final year at school. Why would anyone want to work with and help other students when all are in direct competition with one another? The system forces us to act unnaturally.

I remember one particularly wankish moment (that I’m not proud of now that I look back) where I did not show my notes for an exam to a friend, because he was only a few ranks away from me. If I had, he could have caught or overtaken me! “Why would I want to help someone when he could be a threat to my future?”

Recently, when interviewing young adults for my book What Now? a common theme emerged relating to the final years of school. All these young adults without exception, reported that they suffered some sort of mental health condition during that final year in school as a result of the stress and pressure they were under.

Anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia disorders, sleep conditions, self-harm and even thoughts of suicide were mentioned. These conditions had a root cause in the pressure and stress that these young adults were suffering in their final year of school.

For example, one student whom I’ll call “Lulu”, confided that during year 12 she developed a severe sleep and anxiety disorder due to the pressure and stress she was suffering. Today, some six years later she is still battling those issues and has had to resort to medication and mental health support.

Unanimously these respondents all attested to the fact that since finishing high school they have had one or more occasions where they have woken in panic from a nightmare dream about their final year examinations.

I can remember waking one morning five years after leaving school in a cold sweat thinking I was late for my HSC exams. In my sleep deprived stupor, I proceeded to dig out my old uniform and began putting it on before I remembered that I had graduated years earlier. The relief in that moment when I found I was not back at school is hard to describe. I would never like to go back to year 12 and through the HSC again.

I honestly don’t think I could survive it a second time.

The ranking system we’re using in our schools has only served to alienate and hurt our young adults. It pits student against student. Instead of empowering them in their final year of schooling we traumatise them through a brutal hunger games type “battle to the death”, where students must climb over one another to reach the top.

I wish the current situation was an allegory or fable, but unfortunately the reality of the education system in Australia means we lose many students to suicide annually. This is principally due to the academic and social pressures these young adults face.

Simply … It is unacceptable.

We are making our young adults afraid of failure; we are stiffing innovation and invention. We have a generation who feels as if their dreams for the future have been crushed before they walk out of their last exam. We have an archaic, inflexible, and lethargic education system in Australia that has failed to adapt to the huge amount of change the world has undergone in the last decade.
We now need responses from graduated students to help shape a new system so that we do not repeat the same mistakes and traumas that we are currently inflicting on our students.

There must be a better way to test our students while still maintaining their mental health and enthusiasm towards academic achievement.

For example, Finland routinely tops rankings of global education systems (surprisingly in both the education process, i.e. how students learn – and outcomes, i.e. academic achievement) and is famous for having no banding systems. All pupils, regardless of ability, are taught in the same classes. As a result, the gap between the weakest and the strongest pupils is the smallest in the world. Finnish schools also give relatively little homework and have only one mandatory test at age 16.

And as reported in The Age (7th September 2014), “International education expert Dr Yong Zhao says Australia’s education system would be failing students if it kept focusing on test scores such as the NAPLAN results. Dr Zhao, a Mitchell Professorial Fellow at Victoria University, believes fostering creativity should be a priority because many jobs will soon be done by machines.

He says Australia would be misguided if it sought to emulate the (supposed) success of school systems in Shanghai, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore that are often praised for producing elite scores in international tests.” (word in parenthesis is the writer’s)

The efforts of Templestowe college in Victoria to address these issues seem like a step in the right direction. Students are largely responsible for their own learning, and the college recently created headlines for introducing staggered starting times for students.

In 2015 the college abolished year levels. From the end of their first year at the school students study at whatever level is appropriate for them. There are no compulsory subjects after year 7, and students choose their course from more than 120 elective subjects.

I believe that with a better designed system (perhaps based on the Finnish example, but with an Australian touch) that encourages cooperation rather than competition, together with additional mental health education and support in schools, we can turn back the damage that has been done. We can set our students on the path to brighter, happier and more successful futures.

Jackson Rose is the author of What Now? a book that seeks to help guide young adults after they graduate high school in Australia.

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